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Category → reflections on life

Chemistry graduate school and mental well-being

In case you’ve missed it, this week there’s currently a dialogue between Chemjobber and Vinylogous (of Not the Lab and a current chemistry graduate student) on the topic “Is graduate school in chemistry bad for your mental health?” This dialogue began with Chemjobber relating a personal vignette of a low point he remembered from grad school and then posing the premise:

Yes, graduate school in chemistry can be bad for your mental health. Science can lend itself to isolating workers from healthy habits, from friends and from family. For people who see themselves as competent and at least as good as their colleagues, bench research in chemistry can rub failure in their faces and deliver fierce blows to self-confidence. You can see yourself as falling behind, not pulling your own weight, never giving a good group meeting and just simply not up to snuff.

After setting the stage, Chemjobber then asked Vinylogous, “Is graduate school in chemistry (which you’re participating in right now) making you crazy?” Both Chemjobber and Vinylogous were/are, respectively, organic chemistry graduate students (as was I—well, organometallic), so there’s a shared perspective. Of course, this has an inherent danger of describing circumstances not germane to other chemistry disciplines, but that’s probably a minor point.

Vinylogous’ response is now up, and is the second post of what will become a five-part dialogue, alternating between the two blogs. This first response is very thorough, covering a number of aspects which may influence a graduate student’s behavior and their feelings of self-worth. After relating some personal experiences, Vinylogous arrives at a central theme:

I think a question worth exploring is this: what aspects of the system contribute to the inordinate amount of stress and threaten mental health? I’m going to spend some time discussing my observations, and I invite comment on them.

I found a lot of the observations very insightful. There’s a lot of pulling back the curtain going on here to expose activities and behaviors that usually go undiscussed. I particularly liked Vinylogous’ emphasis on the importance of work-life balance:

Overall, discussions of work/life balance are absent from chemistry programs; frankly, a student and PI should establish a mutual understanding of what this means, and it should be open to re-negotiation later on. In our departmental orientation, we were handed a list of university counseling centers in an almost embarrassed manner. But no discussion of how to step beyond the lab. Instead, our area head told us: “You should always have something running in your hood.”

Vinylogous then brings up other important considerations that are worth reading, so, please stay tuned as the rest of this dialogue unfolds in the coming days.

I’m glad to see this topic discussed so frankly. It’s particularly timely in light of last month’s ACS Presidential Commission report and C&EN coverage on the status of graduate school in the chemical sciences and Deirdre’s terrific ensuing guest post here.

Continue reading →

Electron Pusher, PhD: Reflections on the Final Defense

The final defense is the last hoop you have to jump through in grad school! Photo credit: flick user Palma Co Test.

It is finished. My final defense was last Wednesday—and I passed!

This is a milestone, and milestones are to be blogged about, right? The thing is, I don’t know exactly what I have to say about it. Perhaps it just hasn’t been long enough for it to sink in yet.

It’s interesting, this whole final defense thing. For years, you’re going, going, jumping through each hoop that’s presented along the way. From the very start, you’re anticipating the end, which will one day come. You survive classes, give numerous presentations, pass your prelim. Years pass by, then the long-awaited final defense comes… and goes.

And then… you’re done.

Done? Huh… Okay, awesome, I’m done! That’s it, I guess… I have a Ph.D.

Meanwhile, you proceed to announce on facebook that you passed your final defense and everyone can call you doctor now. Friends and family shower you with congratulatory remarks. It’s wonderful.

But somehow it still hasn’t quite hit that I really do have a Ph.D. For real. I guess I thought I would feel a greater sense of relief and finality. Of course, I’m happy. But it’s a bit anti-climactic when all is said and done.

Overall, I’ve had a wonderful time in grad school. Perhaps this is easy to say now that it’s all over. But really… I’ve lucked out. Sure, I’ve worked hard, but anyone who’s gone through grad school knows that there are a number of factors that are just outside of your control. Many of those things fell into place really nicely for me. I’m really thankful for that. Continue reading →

2012: Looking forward to major transitions, fun adventures

A New Year for new adventures! Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons, Ondrejk.

For the past four years, I’ve kicked off the New Year knowing more or less what the next year was going to hold: I’ll be in the lab, working on my project, hoping for good data that will lead to papers that will lead me one step closer to graduation.

But this year is different. My defense date is almost scheduled in March (waiting for one last professor to confirm), and in May, I will walk across a stage and receive my Ph.D. diploma.

While this makes me extremely excited, it’s also bittersweet.

It’s exciting, well, because the end of grad school means the start of something new—finally!

But it’s also a tiny bit sad because, as much as I’ve complained about it, I’ve enjoyed being a grad student and have made some really great friends who I’m going to miss.

I know those who are in the thick of grad school will beg to differ, but it’s a pretty sweet deal, being paid to get a degree and all. I’ve learned a ton, and although day to day I haven’t noticed it, I’ve grown a lot in five years.

It can also be a bit frightening, if I let it be. When several years of your life are spent doing one thing, and one thing only (or mostly), it’s a little unsettling to not know what you’ll be doing in five months time. Continue reading →

The light at the end of the tunnel

There's no greater feeling than finally seeing the light at the end of the grad school tunnel! Photo credit: flickr user SamBoyd Photography.

I’ve been a bit spotty with blogging recently, so I apologize. I’ve been pretty tied up with collecting and analyzing data for what will be the last (I repeat, last) chapter of my dissertation.

It is a wonderful feeling to be close to the end— I can’t overstate that!!

Anyone who has gone through grad school can probably relate to the feeling of utter elation you get when you realize that you will in fact graduate with your Ph.D. in the forseeable future. The end is near!

For those fledgling graduate students out there, you may be a bit jealous of this feeling I have. But I just have to say— stick it out and soon enough you too will know what it feels like to be almost done!

Wow, there are a lot of exclamation marks in this post. Not to be overly dramatic, but throughout the first several years of grad school, it often feels like it’s never going to end. There are ups and downs and more downs (see earlier post about how I fell out of love with research).

The thing about a Ph.D. program is it’s so nebulous when you will finish. It’s not like undergrad where you check off all the boxes, pass all your classes and walk across the stage to get your diploma. It’s hard to explain that to relatives who assume you’ll have a month-long Christmas break since you’re still a student. No, it doesn’t quite work like that actually…

So when it finally hits you that the end is near, it’s an incredible feeling. Especially, I feel, for someone like me, for whom the end of grad school is the end of research, once and for all, and the beginning of doing what I really love. Continue reading →

The Quest for a Passionate and Purposeful PhD

This guest post was written by Selina Wang, PhD.

When I became a “PhD“ rather than “PhD candidate”, I couldn’t get the question “Now, what?” out of my head. It reminded me of the feeling I had when being asked “What do you want to do when you grow up?” as a five-year-old. Except I wasn’t five and I was supposed to be smart and have a respectful answer that validated the three letters that were now attached to my name.

A simple sit-down meal with professors during a job interview taught Selina Wang a lesson she'll never forget. Image courtesy of Prof. Dean Tantillo, UC Davis.

I was fearful to step into this unfamiliar territory. In addition, the same excitement I felt about my area of research when I first started the PhD program was now accompanied by the additional baggage of skepticism and confusion. I was about to face some huge energy barriers and to anticipate high entropy – something called the post-doctoral life and beyond.

As I explored post-doctoral opportunities, I felt a little lost, sort of directionless and almost underwhelmed by this supposedly-one-of-the-greatest-accomplishments-of-mine-so-far.  Industry, government or academe?  Not sure.  A job that pays better than a graduate student’s stipend?  I hope so. I started to wonder how many of us that attend graduate school with a crystal-clear view of our future career direction maintain that view upon graduation. You know, despite how clear your NIR tubes are and how your crystals grow bigger and faster than your labmates’.

I, like many, had an incredible experience in graduate school. I was in love with doing research and could have stayed in the program forever if I was allowed to (and if I had won a lottery so money was no object). I had a strong sense of purpose – to discover the unknown, to tell people about things they didn’t yet know, to satisfy my own curiosity. I was surrounded by individuals who cared about the same things as I do, including an assiduous PI who started his tenure-track faculty position the same year I started my PhD program. They understood my dorky jokes, granted that they didn’t have the sense of humor to laugh at most of them. It was a safe environment to learn and to do research – which was my job.

Five years quickly flew by (with the exception of the year of my qualifying-exam). I had to move on to a post-doc position, though the idea of being a post-doctoral researcher never excited me. Why give me a PhD if you don’t think I am ready “as is”? At the end of my two-year post-doc gig, I felt my skills were sharpened and I started to feel an itch to get out into the real working world. I had a clearer idea of my strengths and weaknesses and since I’ve enjoyed doing research and teaching, I applied for tenure-track faculty positions.

What I didn’t expect was a particular interviewing incident that reminded me what matters to me and why I chose to pursue higher education.

Sometimes being in grad school makes you feel like a newly hatched chick, wondering what you'll be when you grow up. Photo credit: flick user dux_carvajal.

During an interview lunch at one school, a faculty member started on a rant about a reviewer’s comments on a paper she recently submitted. Other faculty members also shared their experiences with the peer-review process. This conversation lasted a while before one faculty member threw her hands in the air in frustration and said she should not have to listen to anyone’s comments given the reputation of the school where she worked.

Sitting quietly, I was reminded of Einstein who said, ”I have little patience with scientists who take a board of wood, look for its thinnest part, and drill a great number of holes where drilling is easy.” I wondered when they were going to ask interview-like questions or simply acknowledge my presence. They didn’t. I was simply having lunch with a know-it-all-self-righteous person, who even pointed out that the only reason she came to lunch was because the restaurant had nice offerings. I thought I was the one that was poor and liked to take advantage of free food.

The word “faculty” is defined as teaching members or power/authority. Maybe that was the confusion?  They thought they were authorities rather than teachers?

I received similar impressions from many of the faculty, thus despite how this department looks on paper, it was not where I belonged. However, in addition to my bruised ego, I didn’t walk away from this experience empty-handed. After thinking, and over-thinking, I got the answer to a question that has been haunting me since I was five. What do I want to do when I grow up?  It’s not so much about what I do, but it’s about how it makes me feel when I do it – how it makes me come alive.

Isn’t that why we went to graduate school? To feed our passion for discovering the unknown and to take a chance on what we believe. With all the pressure associated with grants, publications and political moves, it is easy to be skeptical and lose sight of what is important to our internal self. But what are we good for if we don’t take risks, make mistakes, and learn from the mistakes? Failures in research have led to many of the most exciting and unexpected results, in a serendipitous way. The discovery of things not looked for has lead to wonderful products such as Post-It Notes, Teflon, the pacemaker, and even the microwave (Percy Spencer, a scientist at Raytheon, noticed that emission from a vacuum tube caused a candy bar in his pocket to melt).

What marks a successful failure? Perhaps, it’s our perspective. We are not know-it-alls, we all are barely know-its spending our lifetimes on figuring “it” out. With a passionate heart, a purposeful mind, and a focused attitude – I no longer feel loss. Thanks to this great lesson from my “failed” job interview.

You want to do what? Explaining your nontraditional career to the world

Several conversations with people I just met have gone something like this:

Don’t be surprised when people give you a blank stare after you tell them about your nontraditional career plans. Photo credit: flickr user lungstruck

So, what did you study in college?

Chemistry.

Wow. I hated chemistry! You’re in grad school now, that’s cool… What are you studying?

Chemistry.

Huh. So… what are you gonna do after you get your Ph.D.?

Become a writer.

(Blank stare).  Hmm… how does that work?

At this point, I go on to explain how I’m super-psyched to use my background in chemistry to communicate science in fun and down-to-earth ways so that anyone can understand.

I’m sure other non-traditional careers folks out there have had conversations like this.

I suppose blank stares are to be expected, since we’re going after careers that are not typical for people with our background. Before I stumbled into the world of non-traditional science careers, I certainly didn’t have the framework to grasp that you could take your science degree and waltz into a seemingly unrelated career path.

Don’t be afraid to be different and pursue your passion, even if you’re going against the crowd. Photo credit: flickr user Ben Heine

I’m happy to be pursuing something that I love, even if it’s atypical. Grad school equips you with a bunch of transferable skills that you can take with you wherever your heart (and job opportunities) lead. So you should never feel boxed in.

Like so many of the people I’ve written profiles about for this blog, I love pursuing my passion! I have never been as excited about a future career prospect as I have been since discovering science writing.

Most people find my non-traditional career goals interesting. Some wonder if I feel I’m wasting my time getting a Ph.D. in chemistry.

I tell them I don’t feel grad school was a waste at all. I’ve learned a ton, both about science and about myself. I’ve grown and matured and am better prepared to confront the challenges of my future career than I would’ve been straight out of college.

That’s not to say grad school is for everyone, or that if I’d do it all again if I could go back knowing I wanted to be a science writer from the start…

I’d like to think I’ve left an impression on some people I’ve talked to (or perhaps other students out there who read this blog), and that some have walked away encouraged to think outside of the box and let themselves dream a little, too…

Take what you can from where you are

I’m back in the lab!

I just got back from a 3-month science writing internship and am back to my research gig as a fifth-year chemistry graduate student (yikes!).

My internship was like a pit stop-- now I feel recharged and ready to finish strong. Photo credit: Bristol Motor Speedway & Dragway

It actually feels good to be back.

Don’t get me wrong: I loved my internship. It was a fantastic experience and I learned a ton. And I’m still looking forward to moving onto a career that doesn’t involve working at the bench.

But I’m excited about finishing what I started here in grad school, and finishing strong.

A much-needed break

The internship came at a really good time. Earlier this year I felt I was on the verge of burning out. My relationship with my research project was feeling pretty strained.

The internship provided a much-needed break from research, while giving me some really valuable training for my future career. Having some time away from research helped me step back and breathe a little.

Now I feel refreshed and ready to push through the last leg of my graduate training before moving on to becoming a full-fledged science writer.

While I was away from the lab, I even worked a bit on my dissertation, which I’m really proud of myself for. Looking at a document with more than 90 pages of text and figures assures me that the light at the end of the tunnel is getting closer!

A new attitude

As I look ahead to what will hopefully be my last year in grad school, I’m realizing that I could really use an attitude adjustment.

Apparently changing your shoes can help change your 'tude. Another excuse to go shoe shopping! Photo credit: ShirleyRC

Formerly, I couldn’t stop thinking about how much longer I would have to endure being dissatisfied with my job. And that made every day feel like drudgery.

This sentiment led me to go on several rants in the past few months all centered around the idea that people should never feel like they need to settle for a job they don’t love.

While I still am on-par with this line of thinking, I’m becoming more aware that there is another side to that coin:

There is something that can be taken away from every experience you have, even (and perhaps especially) the most challenging and difficult ones.

That’s the attitude I’ve decided to hold onto as I brace myself for another year of research.

It’s been about a week, and so far, so good.

To give myself little reminders of my new approach to grad school, I’ve put post-its around my desk.

One of them reads, Make the most of every opportunity.

I’ve also taped up a Dove chocolate wrapper, you know, the ones with those cutesy messages on the inside. It reads: Failure is only the opportunity to begin again more intelligently.

I resolve to make the most of my last leg of grad school before moving on to pursuing a science writing career… wish me luck!

Jump in and discover what you love

Not sure which path is the right one for you? You’ll never know until you jump in and try it out. Photo credit: flickr user mswill5607

A few close friends expressed their concerns to me after reading my post about finding your dream job. They said it’s easy to figure out what you want to do when you know who you are.

But many people feel stuck trying to figure out who they are.

I totally agree. Choosing a career has many parallels to romantic relationship– it helps to know who you are and what you’re looking for in a partner.

It’s okay to not know yet. It takes time and life experience to discover what you love.

But there are practical steps to take to help you along on the road to discovering what you were made for.

Mostly, you’ve got to just jump in and start trying different things.

I love how Stephanie Chasteen, also known as sciencegeekgirl on her blog, describes how she “felt” her way into her alternative science career:

I tell this to all people who ask me about my career, which defines the word “alternative.” “I’m like bacteria,” I tell them. Bacteria… do not “know” that the hot spot or acidic island is “over there.” They have no overall map of their surroundings to direct their movement in a straight line towards what they seek. What they sense instead is a local gradient — a small change, right next to them. It’s a little warmer that way. They move slightly. They feel it out again. Move. Feel. Move. And feel. The resulting path is a somewhat jagged, but non-random, path toward the thing that they love. And so is mine.

Here are the practical steps I took that led me to discover my passion.

Until about a year ago, I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do with my career. Research was okay, but I wasn’t convinced it was my passion.

Then I stumbled across science writing and my ears perked up. After a bit of googling, I found a ton of information and realized there were many possible paths.

To narrow down the options, I started testing the waters.

Take a lesson from bacteria and “feel” your way toward a career you love. Photo credit: flickr user Emily RF

I had some experience writing research proposals, so I thought maybe I could become a grant writer. I bought a book that offered tips for writing grants and attended seminars on the topic. I volunteered to help my PI write a grant proposal for my project. All along, I made mental notes to myself about what I liked and didn’t like.

I also thought about journal editing. I found an opportunity to be an English editor for an international chemistry journal. It was free labor, but a good experience, nonetheless.

I was most intrigued at the thought of doing science journalism, since I loved curling up with a mug of hot cocoa and a science magazine feature story. But science journalism was also the option I felt least qualified for.

I worked up the guts to show up at the info session for the student newspaper on my campus. I sat in a room full undergrad journalism majors and wondered if I was crazy for being a chemistry grad student with no journalism experience wanting to write science news stories.

I also signed up for an introductory journalism course on my campus. This class taught me the basics of journalistic writing, which is totally different from academic writing.

Long-story short, I fell in love with science writing. By the end of 2010, I knew my passion was science communication and that I was made to be a science writer! Continue reading →

Do what you are: A recipe for your dream job

My mind went daydreaming today and I got this crazy idea I want to share. 

I want everyone reading this blog post, particularly those trying to figure out what to do with their lives, to just take ten minutes to forget about the failing economy, the saturation of the chemistry job market, and all the worries that arise when you wonder how you will support yourself and pay off your loans after you graduate. 

Take the next ten minutes to dream— I’m going to guide you through it. 

Take a few minutes to dream-- What are you passionate about? Could you find a way to get paid to do that? Photo credit: Flickr user Alaska Young

Before you navigate away from this page thinking I’m some kind of nut, please let me explain. I’m going to give you the recipe for figuring out what job you were made for. 

In other words, I’m going to help you figure out what kind of job will let you do what you are

Take a piece of paper and draw lines to create four sections. Or type it out, whatever works. 

  1. Causes I am passionate about
  2. Activities that get me excited
  3. Work environments I thrive in
  4. My dream job(s)

For sections a through c, write out anything that comes to mind. Be honest and just let it flow. 

Now, here is the recipe for your dream job: Think of ways you can work for the causes you’re passionate about by doing the activities you love in a work environment you thrive in. 

What’s the idea behind all of this? As you learn more about who you are, you can start figuring out what you were made to do. 

Here’s the awesome part: You are free to add and remove items from your list as you go through life and learn new things about yourself. Your dream job may change many times as you yourself change and grow. That’s okay, that’s all part of it. 

Now, what does this all have to do with alternative careers in science

A lot, in fact. For example, you might think you’re passion is research because you’re in grad school and that’s what you do and, for the most part, you enjoy it. But as you dig deeper to figure out what drives you, you may find that your root passion is problem solving, or perhaps project management, mentoring, or on a broader scale, working for a noble cause. While you once thought you were limited to a research career, you might find that you could be happy doing anything that allows you to fulfill that inner longing. 

So be creative and don’t be afraid to think outside the box. As you open yourself up to careers off the beaten path, you might find that you have more options than you ever knew. Peruse previous blog posts for ideas.

This is all, of course, contingent on finding a job that allows you to do what you want and get paid for it, preferably well. Here’s the thing: People tend to work hard at things they care deeply about. If you have a passion and you work to develop the skill set you need to do it well, there’s almost certainly a market out there for it. Your job is to find out where and how. 

Easier said than done, for certain. And in today’s economy, not everyone has the luxury of finding a job that let’s them do what they love. There are bills to pay and mouths to feed. But I feel that people should never let the reality of a non-ideal situation squelch their passions and dreams for what they want to get out of life and what they want to give back to the world. Continue reading →

Permadocs as an alternative career path— plausible or improbable?

As it is, only a tiny fraction of Ph.D. chemists can bring their research skills to academia because professorship jobs are few and far between. Would the creation of professionalized post-doc positions be a win-win solution? Photo credit: flickr user mstephens7.

Chemistry currently suffers from unemployment issues that stem from there being too many PhDs and not enough jobs. I’d like to open up a can of worms and ask your thoughts on the creation of professionalized postdoc positions in chemistry to address this problem.

This idea was proposed in Nature News back in March by Jennifer Rohn, a cell biologist trained at University College London. Speaking from her experiences in the life sciences, she argued that academia is broken and would benefit from the creation of permanent, university-funded, long-term research positions, which she termed professionalized postdocs:

“To avoid throwing talent on the scrap heap and to boost prospects, a new type of scientific post for researchers is needed… we should professionalize the postdoc role and turn it into a career rather than a scientific stepping stone…
The scientific enterprise is run on what economists call the ‘tournament’ model, with practitioners pitted against one another in bitter pursuit of a very rare prize. Given that cheap and disposable trainees — PhD students and postdocs — fuel the entire scientific research enterprise, it is not surprising that few inside the system seem interested in change…
“An alternative career structure within science that professionalizes mature postdocs would be better. Permanent research staff positions could be generated and filled with talented and experienced postdocs who do not want to, or cannot, lead a research team — a job that, after all, requires a different skill set.”

In less than three months, this blog post got more than 3,000 comments, with responses varying from raving support to derision.

Many commenters agreed the system is broken and in need of a complete overhaul. Others agree but feel the system is beyond repair and that the changes proposed are too idealistic.

Another camp felt that a makeover in academia would only be possible with major infrastructural changes within universities and funding agencies. It would need to be shown that although full-time permanent research positions are more costly, the money would be well spent: long-term scientists would be two to three times more productive than new grad students or postdocs, and the high turnover rate of talent in a lab would be reduced.

Wait a sec, I thought. This sounds an awful lot like a technician or research scientist. Commenters who pointed this out said there is nothing to change since such a position already exists.

The key difference, Rohn pointed out in her response to such comments, is that the position would be long-term and not be dependent on the renewal of a grant, resulting in greater job security. Additionally, professionalized postdocs would do original research and not just be another set of hands.

But professionalized postdocs would reduce the number of spaces in the lab available to new grad students and postdocs. Isn’t that a bad thing?

If you would be as happy as this guy doing academic research long-term, but don't want the added duties of a professorship, a professionalized postdoc could be the ideal choice for you. Photo credit: flickr user Nomed Senkrad.

That’s a tricky question. As it is, too many PhDs are being produced for the number of jobs available, contributing to the high unemployment rates in science. Academia would benefit, several commenters said, by emulating the way medical schools manage their supply and demand problem. Every year, the number of students accepted is determined by the projected need for doctors. Yet in academia, undergrads are actively recruited to graduate school without consideration for their future job prospects, and this is a severe problem.

Hold on. I thought the U.S. was all gung-ho about convincing young people to go for science since we don’t have enough scientists. This blog post seemed to argue for the contrary.

But we need to make a distinction here: the shortage of scientists at the MS/BS level is a real problem, but the overabundance of PhD scientists is something entirely different. It’s a pyramid structure, where there are far more jobs for MS/BS-level scientists than for PhDs. Unemployed PhD scientists commonly find they are overqualified for many of the jobs out there.

Especially in academia, the number of spots are so few that only a tiny fraction of grad students and postdocs have a shot at becoming professors. Some would argue that it has as much to do with luck as it does hard work and research smarts. But that’s a whole different can of worms.

The point is this: academia would benefit from providing  long-term postdoc positions to PhD scientists who want a research career in academia but don’t want all the other responsibilities that come along with academia. Otherwise they will be forced to take their skills elsewhere and find work in other fields.

…not that exploring careers beyond the bench is a bad thing. That is, after all, what this blog is all about! But alternative careers away from the bench are not for everyone, hence, the proposal of this alternative career within academia.

If such a change could be wrought, I think it would be a win-win. PI’s would benefit from having seasoned researchers stick around for the long haul. Permadocs would happily pursue research careers in academia without the added pressures of being a professor. And the number of PhD scientists would go down, which would help our current supply and demand problem in chemistry.

What do you think?

Related Posts:

Doctoral Dilemma
Too many Ph.D.s?
Educating Ph.D. chemists
Too many PhDs? That’s anybody’s guess